KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A maintenance man at the Concord Fortress of Hope church was charged with arson on Monday.
Investigators said Nathaniel Nelson, 48, used fire and racist graffiti to cover up a burglary.
According to charging documents, the 48-year-old showed up to the church’s cultural center Saturday night to smoke crack cocaine.
Police said Nelson told them he did this several times over the course of the night.
The first time Nelson allegedly got high, he broke into two offices and stole more than $200, some of which police say he used to buy more crack cocaine. This is after he failed to break into the center’s finance office, according to the affidavit.
During the second high, court documents say Nelson broke into the center’s vending machines and stole $2.
The third time, he admitted to police to setting an office chair on fire using paper towels, clothing and a lighter.
Nelson also told investigators he unplugged the surveillance cameras, but those cameras were rolling on a different system when he spray painted the front doors.
Nelson was identified by KCPD Deputy Chief Karl Oakman, who also goes to the church. Other members of the church better know Nelson as Nate.
“If he is the one that did it I think he needs help. We all need help really, but I think if he’s the one responsible he needs help,” Steven Murry, a church member, said.
Investigators said Nelson did try to establish an alibi by checking himself into a hospital, but when the nurse told him he would have to provide a urine sample, he left, went home, changed clothes and went to the church. By then the investigation was well underway.
On Monday, Nelson asked the court to appoint him an attorney. He goes back in front of the judge on Thursday.
Churchgoers discover racist graffiti, vandalism ahead of Sunday services
On Sunday morning, churchgoers found racist symbols spray painted on the church's exterior and other vandalism inside.
The Kansas City Police Department said someone broke into the church, got into a vending machine and an office, and lit a chair on fire.
The fire department was called to the church at 11050 W. Longview Pkwy. around 6:24 a.m. Sunday on a fire alarm. Reports indicated a sprinkler in the office was activated. When firefighters arrived, they also found the graffiti on the front doors and windows of the building.
Kansas City Bomb and Arson officers, as well as investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), investigated the incident.
The Kansas City ATF division said on Monday they determined the graffiti was not a hate crime, but rather an attempt to divert attention from the other crimes.
“That’s devastating for this congregation," said ATF Investigator John Ham. "It’s devastating for this community."
But the vandalism didn't stop the congregation from worshipping. Kansas City Councilman Quinton Lucas tweeted that the vandalism would not stop Sunday morning services.
"Fools think they're gonna keep us from worshipping this morning," and "Racist vandals and arsonists not slowing down 8 a.m. service at @concordhope church," he tweeted.
— Quinton Lucas (@QuintonLucasKC) October 29, 2017
“I got to listen to a little, but of the pastor's sermon and you talk about a resilient church, this incident and what is spray painted on the front of the building, regardless of how it plays into our investigation, is not going to slow this church down," said Ham. "In fact, it will just continue to encourage them to do what they are already doing in the community."
The ATF was offering a $5,000 reward for information from the public.
“An attack on a church and an attack on a congregation is really an attack on everyone,” said Ham.
Law enforcement worked under the assumption the break-in, arson, and graffiti were all connected. The incident is being investigated as a burglary and fire.
The FBI has been notified of the incident, and had it been a hate crime, the agency would have gotten involved.